A Skeptic in Football Paradise

PHOENIX — It hasn’t been easy being a skeptic this past week, in this desert city, ahead of the biggest sporting event on the American calendar.

Consider Damar Hamlin. The National Football League wasn’t about to let anyone forget him, especially not during the glitz-and-glam run-up to the Super Bowl.

The young Buffalo Bills defensive back nearly died before our collective eyes on a cold Cincinnati night just six weeks ago. Who among us wasn’t pulling and praying for him? Who hasn’t seen the glimpses of his recovery and felt deep relief and joy?

The N.F.L. never misses an opportunity to gild its image, even if that means promoting the fortunate outcome of a near tragedy. The league made sure Hamlin showed up in Phoenix. Sure enough, there he was on Wednesday, accepting a community service award from the players’ union, dressed in a red suit, looking confident and sure.

And there he was again on Thursday, at a red carpet N.F.L. gala, standing in front of the trainers and doctors who saved his life. He thanked them, and spoke of continuing his quest to be a beacon of hope.

“I have a long journey ahead,” he said, “a journey full of unknowns and a journey full of milestones, but it’s a lot easier to face your fears when you know your purpose.”

Buffalo Bills defensive back Damar Hamlin at an N.F.L. awards show in Phoenix on Thursday. He was joined by the medical staff who treated him after his on-field collapse last month.Credit…David J. Phillip/Associated Press

I’m calloused about the N.F.L. But watching Hamlin in person on Wednesday, I felt goose bumps. I could see a woman nearby shedding a tear.

What a narrative arc.

The N.F.L. is more than a sports league. It is a narrative-spinning factory churning out gift-wrapped stories that drive its popularity and obscure its faults. Hamlin’s appearance in Phoenix was the perfect, made-for-streaming N.F.L. plot point: a tragedy-turned-miracle wrapped in a bow and beamed to the world during Super Bowl media week.

The ugly violence that leaves many of the league’s players with debilitating damage? Hey, look over here on this stage — a fallen hero in the flesh, sending his appreciation and love.

Damar Hamlin’s Collapse

The Buffalo Bills safety went into cardiac arrest during an N.F.L. game in Cincinnati on Jan. 2. He was released from the hospital on Jan. 11.

  • Injury and Reaction: The life-threatening injury to Damar Hamlin, which was televised on “Monday Night Football,” resonated around the league and the world of sports.
  • His Recovery: Hamlin, who returned home nine days after his collapse and spoke publicly for the first time on Jan. 28, appears to be on a good path for neurological recovery.
  • Beating the Odds: Hamlin should not have survived, if statistics on cardiac arrests are any guide. Meet the doctors, nurses and medical professionals at a Cincinnati hospital who saved his life.
  • A Precarious Position: Hamlin’s injury has drawn attention to young N.F.L. players who have been hurt early in their careers and now struggle to get help.

All of the league’s other nettlesome problems? Well, why talk about all that when there’s another corporate-sponsored jubilee to attend.

So, yes, I’m dubious about football — and not just because I’m a reporter whose job requires skepticism.

I’m the father of a 12-year-old. I will never let him play the game, not given what is known about brain trauma. I’m an African American disgusted by the league’s failure to hire Black head coaches and stung by the fact that it took until 2023 for two Black quarterbacks to lead their teams in the Super Bowl. The league’s penchant for brushing misogyny under the rug is a stain I cannot abide.

That said, I’m no different than many other skeptics. I love the game, detest the game and am conflicted by the game. The N.F.L. has a way of pulling me in. It’s the spectacle — the choreographed beauty and drama, the marvel of teams trying to find control amid utter chaos.

I know I’m hardly alone, even if, walking among the crowds at the multitude of fan events in sun-scorched Phoenix, being a doubter felt more than a little lonely.

The league adds to its reach and self-serving mythology by setting up camp at each year’s Super Bowl. It makes each host city its own: a traveling football road show that clamps down on a metropolis like an occupying army.

Phoenix and its flat maze of suburbs saw it all this week. Fan fests. Mixers. Photo ops. Award shows. Flag football. School visits sponsored by the N.F.L. and “farm-to-table” meals sponsored by the Super Bowl host committee. Entire blocks felt like they were sponsored by Tostitos.

Children ran a 40-yard dash at an N.F.L. fan event in Phoenix.Credit…Caroline Brehman/EPA, via Shutterstock

The light and airy mood of celebration works to hide the N.F.L.’s woes.

My cynical side says this season should be forever remembered for how it made us think about the harm players face on the field, sometimes with terrible effects that are immediately obvious, at other times with terrible effects that might not show up for years.

In my view, no matter how Sunday’s game turns out, this will always be the season of Hamlin and Tua Tagovailoa, the Miami Dolphins quarterback who sustained multiple concussions and became the latest example of the game’s risk to the brain. The image of Tagovailoa taking a hit so hard that his entire body seemed to convulse in a severe spasm should remain scorched into our collective memory.

The horror of those injuries, especially Hamlin’s near death, forced us to step back and take another look at the game and its costs.

But not so fast. Super Bowl week, as it does every year, got in the way, pushing the narrative in another direction.

It wasn’t only Hamlin’s appearance with his caregivers in tow. The league positioned itself as above the fray by offering free lessons to the public in CPR. The N.F.L. commissioner gushed about the readiness of the league’s training staff for treating catastrophic injury.

As I walked the streets and talked to fans at the sprawling football-themed carnivals in downtown Phoenix, Hamlin and Tagovailoa were rarely mentioned. When I prodded, I was often told about the power of prayer and the significance of miracles, that Hamlin’s brush with death was merely a freak thing, that quarterbacks like Tagovailoa know the risks, so, hey, what to do?

“I know it’s a dangerous game,” one fan told me. “It’s probably more dangerous than I know or want to see. And I don’t ever plan to stop watching.”

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